24 July 2016

In which I finally become an American

Unlike my trip to the interview, my drive to the naturalization ceremony was a relaxed one. I wasn’t nervous, simply enjoying a day off work with my wife, and the chance for a short road trip. We arrived in San Antonio an hour early, and sat in the park for a while.

The ceremony was to be at the Institute of Texan Cultures at noon. By the time we headed there, over half an hour early, there was a long line of cars attempting to enter the car park. Eventually at around 11:45 I decided to walk the remaining hundred meters or so, and meet up with rothko later on once she had parked. The notice inviting me to the ceremony had specified that I should dress for a solemn occasion. Further investigation online had led to some more specific suggestions — “a nice shirt” — so I changed into that, and exited the car.

The Institute of Texan Cultures is a squat bunker-like building. Inside was museum-dark, apart from the huge wall-sized neon Texas flag. It was thankfully well air conditioned, and I was directed to a long line of Americans-to-be waiting to have their paperwork processed. As a final check, on the day of the event you need to fill out one more form stating for the record that you haven’t committed any genocide or other disqualifying acts since your interview.

It soon became clear that the stated start time of noon was an aspirational one; I got to my seat around 12:10. After another 10 minutes or so, we — that is, the row of people I was seated with — were taken aside. Our papers were checked and our immigrant visas taken from us for the last time for secure disposal. I wished my green card a fond farewell, and sat back down for the main event.

While I waited, I looked through the material in the large envelope I had each been given. There was a cardboard presentation folder to hold the certificate I would receive at the end of the ceremony. A second envelope contained a letter of congratulations from President Obama. A dark colored three-page document turned out to be the paperwork to apply for a passport. There was also a leaflet explaining the process of registering and voting in a federal election, and a copy of the form to fill out. An announcer told us that if we filled out our voter registrations, we could hand them in at the end of the event.

As a citizen-to-be, I had already received additional publications in the mail, including M-654: The Declaration of Independence and Constitution of the United States, and M-76: The Citizen’s Almanac. These were now supplemented with M-767: Important Information for New Citizens.

Overall, I’ve been pretty impressed with all the documents. I find it particularly striking that there’s such an emphasis on responsibilities of citizens, not simply rights. We are told that we have a duty to be informed about what’s going on in the world, and to participate in the democratic process. This all goes back to the principles the nation’s Founding Fathers believed in. For example, Madison wrote:

A popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or, perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance: And a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.

He’s probably spinning in his grave this election season, but still, the idea is one I agree with.

Another piece of paper in the big envelope had the words of the Naturalization Oath of Allegiance on it, as well as the better-known Pledge of Allegiance and the words of the Star-Spangled Banner. For those who don’t know, the Pledge of Allegiance was invented to encourage flag sales, and sure enough we were each handed a small flag to wave.

I was feeling jittery and impatient as the first part of the ceremony started around 13:00. As part of the fun, a USCIS representative read out the names of the 60-or-so nations people were leaving behind. We were asked to stand as our nations of origin were named, and remain standing. We were told that there were around 211 people at the ceremony that day. I stood up near the end, what with the United Kingdom starting with U; but I had missed that one country had been discreetly omitted until the end. Mexico was named, and a whole bunch of people stood up to friendly laughter.

There was a musical interlude before the legal ceremony. A brass band played an eclectic selection; it being Texas, one tune they had chosen was the theme from “Rawhide”. Another more inexplicable choice was “Sweet Child O’Mine” by Guns N’ Roses.

Around 14:00 a flag ceremony was carried out, and the room became an acting courtroom. We were led through raising our right hands and formally pledging sole allegiance to the United States of America, without reservation. As I’ve written before, I have no problem with this, as I’ve never really felt like a subject of Her Majesty the Queen.

And that was it. I was officially an American.

Having lived here for nearly 20 years, and having had months to think about the whole citizenship process, it wasn’t a shock. Still, jitteriness gave way to a complex mix of relief and excitement, with a trace of disbelief and a touch of tearfulness. I thought about my life, and how I came to be here, and wondered what (if anything) it all meant. And then I handed in my voter registration card, collected my certificate, and rejoined my wife to celebrate.

I decided the best way to celebrate immigration in Texas was to have Mexican food, so that evening we got together with some friends to celebrate.

For now, that’s the end of the story, though I imagine I’ll have more to say as I process it all.

© mathew 2017